With a white box containing stunted, lifeless trees and a pile of white rocks, and with a pitted moon looming above, Kathy Prendergast’s set evoked a barren world into which the bewildered characters stumbled one by one, before Catherine Manley’s bright-toned Muse lit the universe up with song. Given that Orpheus cures ills, charms trees and rocks, and visits heaven and the underworld, James Conway’s decision to turn it into a tale of shamanism was plausible, and resulted in one of the most penetratingly truthful accounts I’ve ever heard of this great work. With just nine singers - augmented at one point by locally-recruited choristers in the balcony - plus a large and superb period band, English Touring Opera produced that madrigalesque sound which can only be achieved when everyone is a soloist in their own right.
I could have dwelt equally well on the virtues of ETO’s ‘Seraglio’, or its ‘L’infedelta delusa’, or on its bold revival of Cavalli’s ‘Erismena’. But I’ve described this show at length, partly because it exemplifies the company’s approach at its best, and partly because its unfairly negative reviews led to the sets being junked: its overstuffed barn can only accommodate the paraphernalia for eight shows at a time.
ETO may seem like the perennial new kid on the block, but it’s now into its fourth decade. And when you consider the artists who have graced its programmes, you realise how crucial it has been to the excellence of the British operatic scene. Its conductors have included Nicholas Kraemer, Stephen Barlow, David Parry and Ivor Bolton, with the sadly-missed Noel Davies a more recent mainstay. Its directors have included Steuart Trotter, Richard Jones, Declan Donellan, Stephen Pimlott and Stephen Unwin, while its regular singers have included – to pluck just a few names from a dazzling list - Susan Bickley, Vivian Tierney, Sarah Connolly, Mary Plazas, Susan Gritton, Alastair Miles, and William Dazeley. ETO has always been at the cutting edge.
Its current general director is James Conway, an archetypally soft-spoken Irishman who joined after a long stint at Dublin’s Opera Theatre Company, whence he had long admired ETO from afar. ‘I still remember the key question in the interview,’ he says. ‘What do you want to do? – And I simply said I was interested in making good work, and ensuring that there’s a good public for it. And I think we’ve achieved those things, and stayed in the black. We have to make not very much money go a very long way – but like Mr Micawber we’ve always come out with one penny on the good side, and even paid our artists not too terribly – though still not well enough.’ But he also knew from the start that the company had to become more elastic in terms of scale, and that it needed to do both more performances, and also more productions and co-productions, and that it needed to make greater efforts to harness the talent in the music colleges, whose sometimes superb shows are seldom seen beyond the campus.
The point of this long-winded preamble is simply to say that they are now back on tour with three corkers: William Oldroyd’s production of ‘Don Pasquale’, and Conway’s productions of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. Having missed the last of these the first time round, I caught it at Sadler’s Wells, and what a delight. This co-production with the Royal College of music and the International Opera School trades brilliantly on the freshness of young voices: Nicholas Lester’s Almaviva and Robert Davies’s Figaro are both ideal realisations of these roles, with Eliana Pretorian giving us a bewitching Susana; Mark Wilde’s mellifluously mincing Don Basilio, Niamh Kell’s gawky, moon-faced Cherubino, and Henry Grant-Kerswell’s giant-haystacks gardener Antonio all hit the spot, and with perfect diction. Conductor Michael Rosewell brings out the sheer charm of the score, while Conway’s direction results in more spontaneous-seeming ensemble work that I have ever seen on a large stage (and how pretty this one looks in Agnes Treplin’s designs). Maybe this is the secret: small is beautiful.
They will be on the road for the next three months, taking in Exeter, Truro, Poole, Sheffield, Cheltenham, Norwich, Buxton, Belfast, Wolverhampton, Crawley, Snape, Warwick, Durham, Perth, and winding up in Cambridge on May 29. With assistance from the Foyle and Paul Hamlyn foundations, what an excellent way of spending Arts Council money.